Anyone that knows me, knows that I will sometimes look to song to draw upon which capture life. I could not help but to think about Abel Meeropol’s poem, sung and performed by Billie Holliday. The lyrics are:
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
Last May, a noose was found dangling from a light fixture just 11 miles from here at Crofton Middle School. And I could not help but reflect upon the historical aspect of this tool of terror. Its discovery sent several students crying and the principal also later expressed her fear that her school was targeted because she was the only African American principal in the area. When I learned of the perpetrators ages, both only 19 years old, I was saddened that they were as young as they were. But I was especially saddened for the children that were subjected to this act. As former President George Bush once said “For decades, the noose played a central part in a campaign of violence and fear against African Americans .… For generations of African Americans, the noose was more than a tool of murder; it was a tool of intimidation that conveyed a sense of powerlessness to millions. The era of rampant lynching is a shameful chapter in American history …. Displaying one is not a harmless prank … noose displays and lynching jokes are deeply offensive. They are wrong. And they have no place in America today.”
Just a few weeks earlier, we were subject to similar news coming out of College Park where Police said they spent more than 600 hours investigating the noose reported April 27 in the kitchen of the Phi Kappa Tau chapter house and May 1st American university hanging of a noose with a banana just after a black student was elected SGA president.
These incidents were not isolated. Within a few weeks of the Crofton incident, on:
- May 20th, 2nd Richard Collins III was stabbed to death by someone affiliated with white nationalist;
- May 27th, a noose was found hanging from a tree in the area surrounding the Hirshhorn Museum, U.S. Park Police;
- May 31st, a noose was found inside Smithsonian National Museum African American History and Culture; and
- June 15th a noose was found hanging from a tree in Montgomery Village, Maryland.
The increase in these incidents across our state concerned me.
The Crofton case reappeared in the news with one of the perpetrators avoiding a trial and pleading guilty to committing a hate crime; the other decided to go to trial. I was surprised when I learned that a Circuit Court Judge was signaling that he planned on finding one of the perpetrators not guilty because he felt the statute was unclear.
The judge called on the General Assembly to explicitly spell out what constituted a hate crime. I immediately called Anne Arundel County’s State’s Attorney Wes Adams. I wanted him to help me understand what was happening in the courtroom. After our conversation, I felt something had to be done before an act occurred which had more serious ramifications. He helped me to craft the language which I used to craft House Bill 700.
As expected, on January 29, 2018 the Judge found the defendant not guilty of violating Maryland’s hate crime statute. Drawing a distinction between§10-304 in the Criminal Law Code and §10-305, the judge wrote: “Whereas in CL 10-304 the Maryland General Assembly decided to limit the victim to a person, in CL 10-305 it decided to include a group of those persons.” The Court did not believe this differentiation was a mistake or accidental. The Court wrote the distinction was intentional; I disagreed.
I had HB 700 drafted to address what this judge characterized as a grey area. The bill ensures it is clear that when an individual commits an act against a group because of its members’ race, color, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, gender, disability, or national origin, or because the group is homeless, it can be prosecuted under §10-304.
House Bill 700 is critical in ensuring that we are able to protect our youngest and future generations, to the fullest extent of the law, from acts of hatred that are symbolic of the past. In 2016, eight Maryland counties and Baltimore City reported a 40% increase in the number of hate/bias incidents from 2015. According to Maryland’s 2016 Hate/Bias Report, 285 hate/bias incidents were reported to law enforcement in Maryland. Forty-three percent of incidents reported as hate crimes were directed against the black community while 19% were directed against the Jewish community. Anne Arundel County and my very own Baltimore County were unfortunately among those jurisdictions experiencing increases in hate incidents across Maryland.
Crimes are prosecuted as hate crimes because they are generally seen as crimes meant to send messages to an entire community and not just an individual. The hanging of a noose is a clear message. There is nothing grey about it.
I believed HB 700 should be the General Assembly’s response to the Court’s characterization of our intent and it was! House Minority Leader Nick Kipke spoke up on behalf of the bill during third reader and the House passed my legislation 131-6. Additionally, the Maryland Senate passed a similar bill, SB 528, 46-0.